What to write, and how to write it

I don’t know.

Okay, let me try that again. With more words. Probably a lot more words. I have four hours before my next appointment, let’s see what I can squeeze in.

I’ve been struggling, nay, battling, for the last several years with this conundrum. I’ve been writing reactively. Reacting to bad reviews. Reacting to reader feedback. Reacting to the dozens of prompts/posts/comments I see stream by me every day on the Internet, each with advice/instruction/rules/suggestions/prompts/questions/answers/whatever about what to write, how to write, why to write, et cetera. (For example, I’ve got a Twitter stream open next to the window I’m writing this in (I’m trying to get back into Twitter, after a couple of years of non-use), and even @NathanFillion just gave me advice; “Today, find someone who’s good at what you do, and ask them for advice.” Seriously, his advice is to go find someone to get ever more advice from. I am drowning in advice over here, Nathan. It’s killing me.) Reacting to the market, reacting to how past books performed, reacting to how other people’s books perform, to what other people are writing, and writing on arbitrary schedules and subjects put forth by other people.

For years, now.

Researching what other people are writing, so I can (try to) write like them, write like their audiences expect books to be written, write to follow the same rules, the same conventions. Reading (literally) hundreds of books I don’t like, nearly to the point of convincing myself I don’t like reading, to try to understand how to write like people whose books I don’t like.

Writing books, possibly the best books of my career (so far), that make me a little sick to my stomach to have to write. That were not the books I wanted to write. That were not written the way I want to be writing. And worse: That, despite all the compromises, despite the self-inflicted torture, despite the years of effort, are no more popular, no more enjoyed by mainstream readers, no more accepted by the audiences I worked so hard to target than any of my earlier work. In fact, some of these books (my best writing, my most accomplished storytelling, the books that reader after reader was clamoring for) are among my least-read and least-liked and least-appreciated.

This has been going on since … 2009, I think. Almost four years of my life. Six of the nine books I’ve published (I’ve only published 18, so … nearly half of everything) since Forget What You Can’t Remember and More Lost Memories were so painfully, dreadfully misunderstood, written and published (effectively) under duress. The other 3 books? The “Director’s Cut” release of the version of Lost and Not Found as I’d originally written it, back in 2002. A collection of short stories and essays, 90% of which I wrote back in 2006/2007. A collection of poetry written by someone else entirely.

No, seriously, this is the wrong way to react to a few bad reviews.

What? Bad reviews? Huh? Well, let’s look back: In 2008 I stopped working a day job and started working on my creative projects full time. I started podcasting my books, I started selling and giving away eBooks. I started trying to reach out to the community (mostly of writers/editors/publishers; I still don’t know how to reach out to readers), trying to do more marketing and promotion, trying to get my books out in front of as many people as possible. Thousands of people were reading/hearing my books, and I was working on my next project (Forget What You Can’t Remember), and then … a tiny percentage of readers started putting their responses online. Comments and reviews. And when Forget What You Can’t Remember and More Lost Memories came out, I tried to get book reviewers to look at them, too. I did giveaways. And so on. And … well, people didn’t understand them. They didn’t like them. And it turned out they didn’t like my other books so much, either.

(Well, some people did, but as an example the Amazon page for FWYCR has exactly one review, a brief one-star review. The book has been out over four years, has been read by  perhaps ten thousand people, and has one Amazon review. As far as I recall, I’ve never received fan mail (or txts, or calls) in praise of FWYCR; as far as I know, it is nearly universally loathed. People liked Dragons’ Truth, they liked The First Untrue Trilogy, but even for those titles the majority of comments/reviews/feedback is middling-to-negative.)

That’s where it started. People read Forget What You Can’t Remember and complained that it wasn’t “a zombie book”, or if they thought it was a zombie book (it isn’t) they just said it was a bad one. So I researched popular zombie books, and I wrote Cheating, Death. To shut people up, to give them what they want, I don’t know, but it was a reaction. And people ate it up. Cheating, Death has sold more copies than any of my other titles, and in 2010 it was downloaded more times than my (still) most popular book, Dragons’ Truth. And that started me down this long, painful road to where I am.

(I’ll get to explaining where I am soon enough, though it’s summarized by the “I don’t know [what to write or how to write it]”, above.)

This was all happening at the same time (2009) I was creating more and more artwork that was trying to be what I thought people at the Phoenix First Fridays Art Walk would buy, rather than the art I wanted to create. Rather than what I was inspired to work on. The pressure to create what other people wanted, to follow “the rules” in my writing, to create reactively, to put commercial and other outside interests and influences first, was strong in 2009. To the point where it made me so sick of my own art/process that I stopped painting after about January 2010. The idea at the time had been to take a break and come back to art with fresh, non-commercial, eyes. Perhaps a few months, at most. Then get back to creating the art I wanted to create, the way I wanted to create it, and for reasons that don’t make me sick.

For a brief period, this worked. I even published my only new book of the last 4 years which wasn’t a reaction to other people or outside influences, which didn’t apologize or compromise, and was what I wanted it to be. (That’s Time, emiT, and Time Again, which is a mix of fiction and essays. I called them short stories, but almost all of them are too long to be considered short stories by “official” measures. And they’re all so … well, me. It’s a pretty good book. If I hadn’t put out my own poetry books, it’d probably be my least popular, ever. (Even Yoshira’s poetry book, Unspecified, is more popular than Time, emiT, and Time Again.)) And then, in response to repeated emails, txts, and phone calls from readers asking for the conclusion to the Untrue Tales series, I started working on that. Even though the real reason it had gone so long unfinished was that I no longer wanted to be writing the sort of books The First Untrue Trilogy had been. I spent the next 6-9 months half sick to my stomach, half really happy with how I’d figured out compromises between what the story was supposed to be and the sort of books I wanted to write instead. I think Book Six has some of my best writing, ever, but since it’s so very different from what I was doing in the first trilogy… yeah. Like making myself sick for nothing.

Working on someone else’s book was a welcome respite, and I stand behind Unspecified completely. It’s also part of why I’m trying to start a periodical anthology – I’m at the point where I’d definitely rather be working on other people’s stories than to continue working the way I have been the last four years.

Then I spent a year creating Never Let the Right One Go, compromising on ideas about characters, story structure, plot, theme, and most of all compromising to the overwhelming pressure to create something marketable. Easily-blurbable plots. Covers that look like mainstream covers. Re-ordering the books, changing the stories, and altering the writing style so that the first sentences, the first paragraphs, the opening chapters of each book would be hooks, hooks, hooks. (Did I mention I read almost 100 dystopian stories and YA books as research? Well, I’ve read dozens more YA adventure books since publishing Never Let the Right One Go as further research for my next projects. And most of them are only passingly readable, and as I said above, have nearly convinced me that I don’t actually like books, or reading, at all.) And then the Kickstarter failed. And then the limited edition hardcover sold okay at PHXCC’12, but the eBooks are dead in the water (even the free ones!) and those last few copies of the hardcover are still sitting here.

A year of hard work, hard on me, hard on my values, to create the most marketable, the most mainstream, the most accessible and readable books I’ve ever put out, and: Nothing. Well, yes, when I create a beautiful (limited edition) object, I can hand-sell a few of them to an audience of tens of thousands of people (with a predisposition toward collecting beautiful, limited-edition objects), but apparently this bears no relationship to readership. The small group of people who like everything I write (mostly) liked the books, but the response beyond my friends/fans has been the same as for my other books: Brief and lacking understanding.

So what was the point? Why make myself sick?

But it takes a long time for these sorts of questions to catch up with the inertia of “this is what I’m doing.” I start something, and then I tend to work on it until it’s complete, even if my reasons for starting it have gone away or been proven meaningless or even harmful. I once spent almost a decade of my life carrying out plans I’d made with my first fiancée for our life together, despite having broken up with her before I even began to carry them out. Inertia is a powerful force. It took reaching the cusp of a total mental and emotional breakdown, last November, for me to stop what I’ve been spending the last four years doing. To stop studying the “rules” of writing. To stop reading popular, mainstream fiction. To stop trying to put together projects for an imaginary audience who evidence had proved wouldn’t read my books, anyway.

So since November (when I finished the first draft of a book that simultaneously follows all the rules/formula for writing mainstream fiction while also being bizarre, absurdist, and almost entirely unmarketable – my brain not letting me actually dive head-first into the poison) when my ability to write something fresh proved mentally and emotionally and creatively crippling (a second project, which contradicted me at every turn), I’ve been plagued by self-doubt, depression, and thoughts of suicide. Well, as though to clarify, I’ve spent most of the last few months somewhere between simply wishing I were dead and actually wanting to kill myself. I’ve lost days and weeks at a time in sustained anxiety attacks. Realistically, this has been ramping up (down?) for the last eight months, getting worse and worse as I just kept doing all these things to hurt myself (read: reading, mostly). I tried to interrupt it with other things (stop working on the books & design a game! Yes, that doesn’t suck! Wait, no, apparently I’m a horrible person that no one wants to be around, and I have no business even playing games, let alone designing them.) but when that failed I couldn’t escape the pull of NaNoWriMo, which was the proverbial last straw. And here I am.

And here I am.

I’m trying to recover my footing. To get my bearings. To start doing something creative again. Art, writing, game design, whatever.

But now I’m starting from a standstill. And from almost four years of doing it in ways I know I can’t survive. (or, with the art, from two years of not doing anything at all) How do I start, from here? All those ideas from other people are still in my head. (“Books should be about something.” “Find someone who is good at what you do, and [follow] their advice.” “Without conflict, there is no story.” et cetera) Worse, perhaps, are the ideas (née doubts) that come from my own head. (Even if I were in the top 2%, which reviews, sales, and readership does not (yet) support, that would mean there are hundreds of millions of people in the world who can do better work than I can. What is the point of writing, or drawing, or painting, or designing games, when I can see with my own eyes that I’m surrounded by people who are doing better than I might ever achieve?)

And yes, I know, Neil, none of those other people (no matter how awesome/talented they are, Neil Gaiman, *cough*) are going to tell the stories I can tell. They certainly aren’t going to tell them in the way I would tell them. And when I get that occasional (lonely) call or email from someone who was so moved by something I’ve created that they are driven to reach out, it all seems worth it. Like, if at least one person in the world enjoyed, or understood, or was touched in some way by this thing that I’ve created, then it was a good thing that I created it. (Even if 10k other people didn’t understand it, didn’t like it, et cetera.)

But I think the thing I need to learn is to stop listening to other people. Even, perhaps especially, my readers and fans. I need to stop reacting. Just because people ask for a sequel to Dragons’ Truth doesn’t mean I ought to spend 3 years trying to figure out how to re-write it as a formulaic YA adventure trilogy. Just because people ask for the conclusion to my incomplete series with an unresolved/cliffhanger ending doesn’t mean I should actually spend the better part of a year writing, editing, and publishing three new books I don’t want to write; perhaps a long blog post explaining the rest of the story would have sufficed? Just because one book I wrote wasn’t some other book doesn’t mean I need to go write that other book.

Likewise: Just because the Hero’s Journey works doesn’t mean that every story needs to follow it, or even consider it. Just because formulaic writing works for mainstream authors doesn’t mean I need to follow those formulas in my own writing.

So then I’m at this place of: What ought I to write? What ought I to draw/paint? And why? And of: How should I write it? And why? And right now the answer is that I don’t know. But I’m working on it.

Some of that is struggling with what other people think/say. So if I’m wanting to work in a niche area of creativity, and the way I want to express myself there … is entirely dismissed or discounted by experts in that niche, whose work and expertise I respect and admire, that’s a blow. A struggle. Do I keep heading the way I wanted to head? Do I give up on that niche entirely? Do I do the sort of thing I’ve been doing for years and compromise, giving up what I want to create and trying to fit in with “acceptable” modes of creation? Not that last one, I think, but maybe giving up. Rather than doing work that won’t be accepted outside the niche, because of what it is, and that won’t be accepted inside the niche, because of what it isn’t, maybe just give up on it entirely. Just give up entirely.

And then we’re back to wrist-slitting.

And then there are meta-struggles like: If I’m not listening to my readers, or to other creators, or the rules, and just creating what I want, the way I want, without regard for what anyone else thinks, is that just a sort of masturbation? Egocentrism? But I haven’t the ego for that, and if that’s what all this is, I’d generally rather give it all up, and here we are back at giving up, again.

What’s that, our time here is out, and I’ve got to go to my next appointment? But I’m not done blathering. I haven’t exhausted the ideas I came here to write out. Alas, the clock says I must away, and I know I won’t be in the same state of mind when I return, to be able to pick up where I left off. This may be all you hear on the subject until/unless I figure out more answers and actually start working on something.

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Author, artist, romantic, insomniac, exorcist, creative visionary, lover, and all-around-crazy-person.

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